The Power of Symbolism




One of the reasons I've been MIA (French class aside) is I've been working on a piece for the magazine about Obama's relationship with the black community. One of the themes I'm looking at is how Obama employs symbolism to woo African-Americans. 


There's a stereotype of successful black men that holds that they prefer white women, white society, and white people, overall. And they tend not to identify with the black community. When you're discussing biracial black men, or Ivy League black men, that stereotype is only intensified. The crude saying is "All the good ones are taken, married to white women, or gay." Or some such.

Obama is surely "taken" but he is "taken" by a woman who represents, and formed a family that represents, and thus Obama represents. He has not "opted out." I don't doubt his sincerity in checking "black" on his census forms. Moreover, I think people who urge him to do otherwise, often do so having the luxury of roots, of a home, of being "from somewhere," or of having traditions which are not regarded with some hostility in broad swaths of the country. Still, I would have to believe that Obama understands the message he's sending to that place where he says he is rooted. 

And Obama -- and his family -- are  as Joe Biden would say, clean. Randall Kennedy is dead-on when he writes:

Blacks love Obama for relieving them of the burden of making excuses for him. 
One has not had to worry, for instance, about saying "Yes I know he has a love-child, but he's the only one raising these issues. Or, "Yes, I know three boy accused the pastor molesting them, but the church has helped so many. Or, "Yes I know know five women have accused him of sexual harassment, and he doesn't know a thing about Libya, but the GOP should be more diverse." Or, "Yes I know he urinated on a child, and videoed it, but he sings so beautifully, don't you agree?"

No, Obama is clean. 

It's tempting, and perhaps correct, to impugn this low standard, which is, itself, a reflection of racism. (Again, Alex Smith is not worried about what Tim Couch did.) It is equally tempting to dismiss symbolism as unimportant when measured against tangible policy. I hope to look at how Obama's deployment of symbolism often shields him from actual critique. But I don't think symbolism should be easily dismissed. Perhaps having your president croon Al Green at the Apollo really does make your day easier.

One way to think about this is remember that black people are people, and that all people turn human beings into symbols, whatever the person's actions. It's worth thinking about why we -- as humans -- do this. What need are we fulfilling? What ache are we ministering to? What is this need -- among us all -- to represent for our team? 
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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